Aikido: The Real Thing

Me, 2010, after receiving my hakama, the flowing black pants of advanced students.

Studying Aikido, I have found the courage to stand up for myself and others, to be at peace from a place of strength. Ironically (at least to me), one of the first comments I got used to hearing was: “It looks fake.”

Aikido, the Japanese martial art of “the Way of harmonizing energy,” involves flowing, graceful movements that sometimes appear almost dance-like. In fact, American Terry Dobson, the last uchi-deshi (live-in student) of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, authored a book about his Aikido experiences entitled, It’s A Lot Like Dancing.

Seeing Aikido for the first time is either mystifying or mesmerizing, or both. What it isn’t, is obvious. You can literally train for months before you even begin to know what you are looking at. “Martial art” – that means war, right? Combat. Fighting. So we watch the hands that hold the weapons, or the flying arms, and we expect, we focus on, we invent, blocks and jabs and painful joint locks and the general doing-of-harm. We look for an assailant and a victim, or at the very least, a contest of combatants.

But Aikido is none of that. It isn’t fake: it’s just not what you expect when you hear the words “martial art.” Because Aikido isn’t about destroying an enemy. It’s not about attack and defend. It’s not even about competition. Aikido is the daily practice of love and transformation.

It began with a small Japanese boy named Morihei Ueshiba. The man now known as “O Sensei,” or “Great Teacher” was just over five feet tall — barely tall enough to be in the Japanese military at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. Born in 1883, he had been a weak and sickly child. Yet he was determined to become a powerful fighter, and worked tirelessly to become one, starting around the turn of the century. By 1925, he had studied numerous martial arts and was considered one of the greatest fighters alive in Japan at the time; masters of various martial arts would seek him out to challenge him. One time a master swordsman came to prove himself; Morihei simply avoided his blows until the man stopped, exhausted. Morihei felt so “at one” with his attacker that he could blend with his every move. After the “fight,” Morihei went into his garden where he had a profound spiritual experience of oneness with the whole universe. He realized that “budo,” the way of the warrior, in its highest form, was the way beyond war — to complete harmony and love.

The art he began to create then, became Aikido.

But Aikido is no fuzzy-headed, woo-woo practice that anyone can achieve with mere good intentions. It is a demanding, complex art that takes many years to understand, much less master. Even the first steps, however, are profound and beneficial in themselves. A spiritual seeker, O’ Sensei taught his students that to begin to truly practice Aikido, they not only had to love their would-be enemies, they had to love themselves.

“Winning means winning over the discord in yourself. Those who have . . . a mind of discord, have been defeated from the beginning,” is one well-known translation of his words.

As a young woman growing up in the Deep South, I learned that it was my role to accommodate, to laugh off offensive behavior or speech, to come up with strategies for deflecting street harassment, to be polite, to avoid conflict, and – if push came to shove – to submit. At home, as a Quaker, I learned that fighting was anathema. Bottom line: there was no defending myself with direct, clear, respectful speech or action. I was raised amidst a perfect storm of potential victimhood. By the time I was in high school, I’d learned to use words as weapons. Eventually, as an adult, I began to use humor to deflect hostility, and compassion, at least in retrospect, to try to understand what possessed people.

But being so constrained, so tangled up and hampered, perceiving myself as physically weak, was a pretty good “mind of discord.” The human (heck, animal!) instinct for self-preservation demands a strategy, but my options felt terribly limited. I coped. I became careful. I didn’t walk alone at night, I watched what I wore, I didn’t speak my opinions in public. I tried never to make mistakes.

Aikido forced me to face up to the aspects victimhood I’d learned, to come to terms with the values I’d internalized, to question the shallowness of the options I’d perceived. What if I was in charge of my own being? What if I was worth keeping safe? What if  … everyone was?

That’s the core of Aikido: that person trying to harm you is worthy of love, just as you are. So the strategy is pretty simple: Step aside. Join with the attacker, blend with them, transform their energy. In order to do that, you need an active curiosity about what’s going on with the other person or people, and a good awareness of your personal boundaries: where you begin and end; where they do. And self-respect: a deep core of being at peace with yourself.

In many photos of Aikido practice, “nage” (the person throwing) looks nearly stationary; the “uke” (the one “attacking”) goes flying — a blur of movement. My friend and fellow Aikidoka, Aspen, and I are very proud of the photo at right because (despite the fuzziness caused by low light) his beautiful roll is round and fast; my throw is nearly still. That stillness is a reflection of centeredness.

In this photo, I am the axis around which Aspen is turning. The goal is to be that center:  gently guiding the energy that comes flying at you. The still center in this photo shows the inner peace, the quiet confidence that means, at least in this moment, I had shed the “mind of discord.”

So, no. Aikido is not fake. It can be profoundly effective, not to mention playful and fun, in both martial situations and in social ones. It’s just not fighting.

4 Comments

  1. So nicely written! The first time I saw Aikido, I recognized the strength and peace you describe. My longing burst into flame. Many years later I inhabit a place of deep self respect that Aikido helped me discover. Only rarely does the internal battle flare up; then it’s really just a sputter. This art offers a profound opportunity to embody love and be fully alive. As always it is a joy to train with you and to truly see you!

    • Thanks, Val, for your words — and for all the training. One of my seminal moments in the early days was training with you, learning from you. I so appreciate(d) your patient persistence! Training with you always brings me so much joy, and often new realizations about what is possible.

  2. Virginia, thank you for this clarity.

    • Thank you for reading, Marc! I’ve been meaning to try to put some of this into words for a while … always hard to tell how well one has succeeded! 🙂

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